With the court cleansed of evil spirits, youths face their tribe

FOR THE first time in the history of the United States, an Indian tribal court - albeit one of disputed credentials - is sitting in judgement on two delinquents who have been handed to them for punishment by an American state judge. Watched by several dozen tribe members, the youths appeared on Thursday in their remote fishing village in Alaska before a self-proclaimed council of elders who say the pair could be banished to uninhabited islands for a year to atone.

The bizarre case has aroused strong emotions since Judge James Allendoerfer decided to release Adrian Guthrie and Simon Roberts, both 17, to their fellow Tlingit tribesmen after they admitted stealing dollars 40 ( pounds 26) from a pizza delivery man, who was hit in the face with a baseball bat.

The judge, in Snohomish County Superior Court in the state of Washington, took the decision last month because he wanted to try to avoid giving the boys prison terms - of three to five years - under mandatory sentencing laws. But his experiment in cross-cultural jurisprudence ignited fierce controversy after it was revealed that an Indian 'tribal judge', Rudy James, who persuaded him to hand over the youths, is not recognised by many bona fide Indian groups.

Although a few of Alaska's 14,000 Tlingit Indians are delighted, hailing the move as a landmark in their battle for recognition, others allege that the hastily- convened court is a sham, and is badly distorting their history. Prosecutors say it is all a trick to allow the boys to flee.

So far, that theory has proved unfounded. Looking somewhat startled, the youths appeared at a ramshackle community hall in Klawock, a tiny logging and fishing community on the Prince of Wales Island off the south-east Alaska panhandle. The event, orchestrated by the publicity-conscious Mr James - who is planning a film documentary - had far more to do with theatre than with the principles of law, Indian or white, about which all participants seemed extremely shaky.

The boys wore ill-fitting tribal clothing over jeans and trainers. After being escorted into the hearing by Indian security guards through the 'Door of Shame' (in fact, an ordinary exit), they were given a feather, which they had to hold as they were questioned about their crime, while their victim and his family looked on.

They faced a group of 12 mostly elderly men - some in red and blue Indian blankets and tassled tunic tops, others in boots and braces - who could be compared to an English parish council, were it not that they claim greater ancient powers. These include cutting off thieves' fingers, or banishment to an island.

Before the so-called Combined Tribal Court of the Tlingit Nation convened, the meeting hall, more commonly used for bingo nights, was cleansed of evil spirits, a process that required an elderly Tlingit man, wearing waterproofs and a baseball hat, to beat the wooden walls with branches.

Filing in, the audience were hit in the face by fern wielded by a woman wearing a headband of dangling white mink skins, and told to wipe their feet. Thus purified, they were allowed to witness proceedings, munching happily on Danish pastries and downing cups of coffee. The panel had less appetising fare: Devils' Club, a 'spiritually cleansing' tribal drink made from a local bush.

What were described as the 'highlights of the White Man's police force and court charges' against the youths were read out. 'If you tell a lie holding the feather, you will force all the negative forces of Nature to come down on you,' Mr James warned them. Then came the questions: 'Before the assault and robbery were you sober, drinking, using drugs, or both?' Guthrie: 'We were drinking Bacardi.' And so on.

The possibility that the youths may be banished, equipped only with basic tools and limited food supplies, has transfixed the several thousand residents of the Prince of Wales Island, although it appears few believe it will happen. Last night the hearing was still unfinished. In Dave's Diner, conversation among fishermen and loggers has switched from trapping and eagles' nests to the boys' fate. 'Where would they go?' asked Dale Meyers, a retired fisherman. 'Most of the islands round here are accessible by boat so their friends would be popping over with supplies of drink and food, to party. The whole thing is a load of old nonsense.'

Anyone travelling to Prince of Wales Island may find themselves wondering why any further banishment is necessary. The 132-mile long outcrop of pine trees and rock is one of the hundreds of clumps of land that seem to have crumbled off the north-western edge of the United States. One of its few links with the outside - or rather, with Ketchikan (pop: 14,000), the nearest Alaskan settlement of any size - is by small aircraft.

'They should have beaten those kids with a baseball bat,' said Chris, a Ketchikan Air representative, driving me across the island, past a shop window advertising wolf pelts for dollars 300. 'If they get banished they will have a wonderful time. Lap of luxury] There's plenty of food out there - Sitka white-tail deer, salmon, clams.'

As for Messrs Roberts and Guthrie, they have welcomed the possibility of banishment, preferring it to county jail. They claim to be well equipped to survive on islands inhabited by black bears and deer, having learnt to hunt and fish as children. It is unclear when their ordeal would start - if ever - although they are required to reappear before Judge Allendoerfer for sentencing in 18 months.

'They haven't got tents yet,' explained Roberts' grandfather, one of the council of elders, from beneath his wolf-skin hat. 'We have to order them from a mail order catalogue, which means they'll take at least a fortnight to arrive.'

(Photograph omitted)